Should Targeted Web Ads Be Illegal?

Reason’s Steven Titch’s new column:

One of the great things about the World Wide Web is that much of the content is free. If you are a regular Web user, chances are that you used your Internet connection today to get something that only a few years back would have meant an out-of-pocket cost for you. A trip to the news rack once would have set you back at least two quarters. Now you can read articles from not just about any newspaper in the U.S., but around the world. delivers free movies. Network TV Web sites, like or, let you catch up on past television episodes of Lost, Heroes and The Office. Why rent the DVDs? For pure utility, Google and MapQuest provide up-to-date local street maps and turn-by-turn directions, replacing those bulky foldout maps, which, at a couple of bucks a shot, always seemed to lack pertinent details like street names and cul de sacs. Of course Web content isn’t really free. Most of us pay a connection fee. And someone’s bearing the cost of creating, storing and delivering all that valuable information. In most cases it is advertisers. And given the wealth of content we can get on the web, combined with early doubts about the viability of Web advertising as a business model, it’s turning out to work quite well. But recent legislative moves in the name of consumer protection threaten to end this consumer-business win-win. Earlier this year, New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Greenburgh-Mt. Pleasant) proposed a bill to outlaw the use of consumers’ Web browser information to transmit and display (or “serve,” as its called in Web circles) a specific advertisement based on that data. In Connecticut, the state assembly’s General Law Committee has also introduced a bill to prohibit the practice, known as targeted Web advertising. One of the concerns for consumers and Internet companies is that, given the borderless nature of the web, if a single state bans targeted advertisements it would amount to a total ban in many ways. Ad servers have no way of verifying where a computer is located. In order to assure they were compliant with a New York or Connecticut law, ad delivery companies would have to end targeting all together.

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